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The Shake Keane Story (Part 2)

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The Shake Keane Story provides not only narrative but analyses his poetry, and jazz, paying particular attention to the link between his poetry and jazz. The author describes the political context which Shake seemed to have underestimated or misunderstood. He left St. Vincent one year after Adult Suffrage and was unfamiliar with the development of party politics. His fate as director of culture was sealed because of his relationship with Son Mitchell. Shake knew Mitchell at the Grammar School but they seemed not to have been close friends until they met in England, Mitchell having attended some of his jazz performances and hosted gatherings that linked him with students like John Compton, Oliver Jackman of Barbados who later became a diplomat and which was attended on occasions by CLR James whom the author says was a friend of Mitchell.

     Reference is made to Shake’s 1973 address to the National Youth Council where he laid out his plans for the development of the country’s ‘artistic culture’. He of course was never able to put these into operation. With his dismissal and the abolition of his post, he turned to teaching, being principal of Bishop’s College, Georgetown and later, the Intermediate High School and doing occasional ‘gigs’ at the Aquatic Club. Vincentian-born Gene Lawrence who is a ‘classically trained’ guitarist now living in St. Lucia, and who made remarks at the launching of ‘Shake’s Story’, remembered once taking a band to the Aquatic club where he was joined on stage by Shake. Stilly Fraser, who spoke to Philip, remembered the occasion, with Shake playing “Moonlight in Vermont” resulting in total silence as the gathering stood in awe listening to his music.

     Shake felt somewhat out of place in St. Vincent.  Despite his reputation in England and Europe his type of music was not very much appreciated and there were few musicians with whom he could relate. In a letter to John La Rose of the New Beacon, books, likely written in 1980, the author suggested, he stated, “St. Vincent still baffles me. Life here seems to defy participation.” Two high points of his stay in St. Vincent were his winning of the Cuban Regional Casa de las Americas prize for his “One A Week With Water: Rhymes and Notes”, in 1979. That year was also when he launched his ‘Volcano Suite’, his response to the 1979 volcanic eruption, much of which he wrote at the Fishnet restaurant of his friend Edgar Adams who was also instrumental in having it published and launched.  As we face the possibility of another eruption, we must remember Shake’s observation “that the island fell in love with itself” ,  . . . (“As a prelude to resurrection and brotherly love, you can’t beat ructions and eruptions”)

     In 1981 after attending CARIFESTA in Barbados he made a decision to migrate to the US, not because he wanted to go to the US, but as he informed a BBC Jazz presenter and critic, “I wanted to get out of St. Vincent.”  As the author describes it, “An exasperated love affair with his island and its people was over. And so,  . . . frustrated and somewhat embittered, he left St. Vincent for the last time and would never return.” Philip puts this in the context of the returned migrant and asks the question, “can one ever actually return? In the interval between departure and return, both place and person change.”  This, the author sees as being expressed in his poem “Credential” and quotes three lines (I have added part of what came before)”bwoy What yo come for, wheh yo big car, wheh yo wool-hat, wheh yo snap-soul an’ yo whiskey an’ yo ‘tankerousniss, All -we culture all we potential Is definitely non-residential; all dis trumpit is a famous load o’ piss”.

     Philip adds, “In recognising that ultimately the migrant can never really return, ‘Credential’ is a valediction – a farewell to innocence.” Reference is drawn to another of his poems, ‘Roundtrip’ which “takes a more playful approach to migration and return.”

     One of the chapters in this book is captioned “THERE’S NO UP WITHOUT A DOWN”, a maxim which the author said Shake had often debated with his school friend Cecil Cyrus. His stay in St. Vincent was one of the down periods, as was Brooklyn, although for different reasons.  (To be Continued)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian